First of all, that nun was out of her mind. I have NEVER heard it taught in the church that ANYONE is going to hell. In fact, the church, in my experience, almost goes too far in the opposite direction, telling us not to judge or condemn our brothers and sisters, no matter what religion they are because only God knows His relationship with each individual person/religion. This includes and is extended to non-believers and non-Christians alike. We are called, as a church, to minister to, love, care for, and share Christ with everyone we encounter. We are called to be Christ to everyone who needs Him, but we are not called to judge whether or not their particular faith is legitimate. I have seen a level of courtesy extended to Muslims, Buddhists, and Jews that I was somewhat in awe of and sometimes confused by, but that ultimately left me realizing that this was what Christ called us to... to LOVE every body, to serve Him through serving them, to spread the Word by our actions and our words, and to leave their hearts to Him, because in the end, only God can change a mans heart. This is not to say that we are not responsible for going into the nations and spreading the Word, it means that we are not to judge the state of another's heart. This nun was DEFINITELY off track and I can't imagine a Catholic teaching she would stand on that would say she was right. As the church is holy, it's infallible. However, as the church is made up of humans, it is flawed and that is definitely a flawed theology!
Secondly, do Catholics believe we are the only legitimate religion? No! What your husband is referring to is that Catholics and the Church believe that we have the "truest form" of religion. I want to be careful and VERY CLEAR here... we do not think we are right and everyone else is wrong! That is to say that we believe that our theology, our doctrine, and our practices are as close to what Jesus left His disciples as we can achieve on earth. However, it does not mean that there are not other true religions and that God isn't present and working in the hearts of every man, woman and child in our world, regardless of their religion or beliefs. Each of us come to Him in our own way and in our own time. Now, before anyone gets up in arms about us saying that we have the truest form of religion, stop and think for a minute that most every pastor in every religion in the world would say the same thing, Protestant or Catholic. If you thought another faith had a "truer" form, why wouldn't you be in that church? Why would you choose to remain in a church where you felt that they were close to right, but that someone else was actually doing it better? It would only stand to reason that we all congregate to where we feel like we are closest to what God calls us to be, right? I don't know if this makes sense, but I don't see it as we are right and everyone else is wrong. I have specifically asked this question of one of the theologians in our parish and this is what I was told. We believe (and history makes a strong argument for the fact) that Catholicism was the original religion. That when Jewish Christians were ejected from the churches a few years (maybe around 30 or 40 years or so) after Jesus' death, the religion that resulted was Catholicism. Peter (the Rock on which Jesus built his church) was our first church leader and the religion spread informally at first (secret meetings in homes and catacombs) and then became an organized religion over the years. Prior to the Reformation, there was Catholicism, Judaism, and Pagan worship. When Martin Luther nailed the edicts on the door of the church, it was not his intent to split the church. It was his intent to reform the Catholic church, he never actually set out to father a new religion. The Church of England resulted in great part from that split, due to the desire of King Henry to divorce himself of his first wife and marry Anne Boleyn. However, the Church at that time had become very corrupt and very powerful. They had taken advantage of the fact that the people had no choices and they were acting in very unethical ways (selling dispensations, promoting church leaders who were evil, etc. etc.) So, in that respect, Luther actually forced a cleansing of the church that worked for the good of the church at the time and continues to keep leaders accountable. However, Catholics also believe that it was never the intent of God that His believers and followers be seated at different tables. This came about through the fallen nature of humans who failed to lead the church in the appropriate manner (Catholics of the pre-Reformation age) and we all continue to live with the aftermath of their sins. Paul addresses this several times in the New Testament, warning Christians not to call themselves "followers of Paul" or "followers of Timothy", but rather to consider themselves followers of Christ, one body. Even in the VERY early church, the temptation was there to fight among each other over the "details" of how Christians worship. In this way, the age old "battles" rage on. It's why Catholics (and Episcopals and some others) observe a closed communion. It's a sign of mourning that we are not at one table together as we believe God intended and a "penance" that we must pay until that day in heaven when we are all seated together.
Someone wanted to know about Penance. Penance is simply a "reparation" for wrongdoing. Penance is basically what the priest instructs us to do after confession. Webster's dictionary refers to it this way: "an act of self-abasement, mortification, or devotion performed to show sorrow or repentance for sin." In the Catholic faith, it's how we repair the relationship that sin has broken through confessing our sins to the priest and receiving a "penance" or an act that we perform to repair our wrong. A thoughtful priest will often give a penance that is directly related to the confessed sin. For example, I confessed to the priest that I had talked behind someones back, my penance was to invite that person to lunch and let my sin be known to that person and ask for forgiveness. This is extremely hard to do, but it didn't let me off the hook for facing my sister who I had wronged. On the other hand, I've also faced priests who gave very easy penances like, "Say 10 Our Fathers". These types of penance, while they may work for some, are not as helpful to me and I often feel "let off the hook" by the generic penance. So, I hope that explains what a Penance is, if not, please feel free to ask, I will elaborate.
Purgatory is actually a more difficult one to explain. It's one of the "mysteries" of the Catholic faith and it's a mystery to many of us too! :) It's not a "place" so to speak, it's a state of being. One priest explained it to me this way, "When an older person lingers in body, not alive, but not dead either, that is likely purgatory. It's the soul's preparation to be in the presence of the splendor of an Almighty God." The Scripture that Purgatory is based on is not in the Protestant Bible. It is one of the books that was rejected after the Reformation, due in part to it's mention of Purgatory and the direct conflict that posed with Reformists. I actually don't know the verse it's based on, but I will look it up and get back to you... stay tuned on that one.
In terms of works vs. faith. James 2:19-23 really says it very well. One is dead without the other. You cannot have faith without it producing works in you, if you do, it's a dead faith, useless. Paul addresses this numerous times as well, never better than in 1 Corinthians 13 when he says that if I have faith that will move mountains, but have no love, it is worthless. Your faith is worthless unless it produces love in you, in other words. How do we love one another? Katie Davis does it very well. Paul Farmer (Mountains Beyond Mountains) loves! So many I can think of are allowing their faith to produce a Godly love, but what does that LOOK like? How do we know they love? We look at their works. Their works are certainly, by no means, saving them, Jesus doesn't value them over me because of the merit of their works, but their works are a natural extension of the love in them. We do not, by any stretch, believe that we are saved by the works that we do. We believe that we are redeemed from Hell, where we deserve to be, by the grace and mercy of a risen Savior, Jesus Christ. But we believe that a faith in that Savior will produce works in us that will glorify our Father in heaven. Can we go to heaven if we are "saved" but never do a good deed in our life. I suppose, but I would question whether or not you could have a true relationship and faith in Christ without it producing a change in you. If the Holy Spirit is SEALED in us the moment we accept Christ, then how could we not be changed? And how could we not "look" different to the world? I don't think I have explained this very well. I know that what matters to Christ is our hearts, I just think if our hearts are right, we will not be "dead" in spirit. Yes, we are saved by grace. Yes, grace covers our failures to act, our wrong actions, AND our misdeeds. But a true relationship with Christ produces something... He says a vine that does not produce fruit will be pruned so I think this is probably making a case for what is expected of a Christian. Make sense? I think I butchered that one!
So, I really hope that none of this sounds like an info-mercial for Catholicism. I respect every Christian religion as legitimate and I do not question the faith others have found through various forms of worship. For me personally, joining the church was about following my husband. He was committed to the Catholic church. I believe God set him as the head of our home. If he was not a follower, then it would have been a different story, but since he was already an active participant in a faith, I believe that God was calling me to embrace that faith. That's not to say that God was calling you or anyone else there. God calls each of us in His own time and in the way that speaks to us most pointedly. Catholicism is certainly not for everyone and I don't believe it's my job as a Catholic to convert anyone to my faith. I believe it's my responsibility to be Christ in every possible dominion. I am to be the hands and feet of Christ. I am to be a lover of Christ by loving His people, every single one of them, and particularly the least lovable among them. That's the crux of our faith... love, serve, and love some more. Pour yourself out before Christ and be transformed by His love for you. Let your light so shine before men that you would glorify your Father in heaven. Letting your light shine is different for every single person, we all have a different light, but we all glorify the same Father! Make sense?
I'll leave you with this, which I think is an excellent explanation of the Catholic stance on faith and works" from James, chapter 2:
14What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
18But someone will say, "You have faith; I have deeds." Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.
19You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
20You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless[d]? 21Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23And the scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,"[e] and he was called God's friend. 24You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.
25In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? 26As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.